The NFL and ESPN can’t control each other — and it’s getting ugly
One task on James Pitaro’s to-do list should get a big circle.
The newly named ESPN president must assume responsibility of the network’s longstanding relationship with the NFL, which has reached its nadir in recent months, according to a SportsBusiness Daily report, as negative NFL storylines have made their way into ESPN’s coverage. Pitaro, who took over last Monday after a search that began when John Skipper stepped down in December, has made it one of his top priorities to patch up the points of contention that materialized under Skipper’s leadership.
Reconciling with NFL executives became even more urgent when it was announced FOX and the NFL Network were joining forces in covering the NFL draft. That news came the same day Pitaro grabbed the reins, and it didn’t sit well with ESPN that the league had tabbed one of the network’s biggest competitors to air its own show around the draft, for which the Worlwide Leader has been the go-to source for decades.
The FOX deal could be seen as revenge by the NFL for ESPN dipping its toes into the myriad controversies that marked last season — the league’s handling of national anthem protests, increasing connections between football and traumatic brain injuries and criticism surrounding commissioner Roger Goodell’s contract extension, among others.
It’s not the first time ESPN has had to choose one objective (adhering to journalist expectations) over another (appeasing the NFL over their $1.9 billion-a-year deal), and consequentially upset one or more parties.In 2004, ESPN canceled “Playmakers,” a series that depicted a fictional professional football team, after just one season due to pressure from the NFL over the show’s at times negative depiction of players’ extracurriculars. In 2013, the NFL got what it wanted before a documentary with ESPN’s name on it even ran, when commissioner Roger Goodell convinced Skipper to back out of a partnership with PBS on “Frontline,” which released a film on the NFL’s “concussion crisis.”
This past season, ESPN seemed not to shy away from doing its due diligence on NFL reporting. An investigation into an alleged rift among the people behind the Patriots dynasty, for example, rocked the league when it was released in early January, just a week before New England’s first playoff game of the 2017-18 season. The report led to owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady denying the allegations and attacking the validity of the revelations.
The piece was just one domino in a year full of them, a shaky situation only made worse by Skipper’s lack of connection with NFL executives, according to the report. Unlike his predecessors, Skipper apparently did not maintain the relationships necessary, such as with Goodell and executive vice president of media Brian Rolapp, to ensure fruitful business decisions down the road.
Enter Pitaro, whose biggest decision might be how ESPN moves forward with the NFL after their 10-year, $15.2 billion deal expires in 2021. While ESPN pays more for NFL rights than any other network, it is on the verge of losing its one playoff game to FOX, making an already grim-looking future a point of frustration among ESPN employees who feel they’re not getting the NFL access they deserve.